Some 2,000 people have joined a sit-in protest at Bamako's Independence Square monument, calling for army intervention in the north where Islamists have enforced strict sharia law, destroyed ancient shrines and trapped residents with landmines.
"If the army doesn't want to go to war, then give us the means to liberate our territory!" Oumar Maiga, leader of a northern citizens' collective, who took part in Wednesday's protest said.
Islamist groups Ansar Dine and MUJAO, believed to have links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, took control of the ancient towns of Gao and Timbuktu last week after violent clashes with the MNLA, a former ally that in April helped them oust the Malian government from the north.
They have applied sharia law to the region, and since last weekend destroyed seven sacred sites in the ancient town of Timbuktu, including a sacrosanct door leading to an internal shrine in the 15th century Sidi Yahia mosque.
In the key northern city of Gao, Ansar Dine's al-Qaeda allies have planted landmines around the city to prevent a counter-offensive by the Tuareg fighters they violently expelled last week.
The protest came as the international community mulled ways to help Mali's embattled interim government save its vast desert north, a territory larger than France or Texas, from the armed Islamists.
Mali is being ruled by a 12-month interim government set up after a March 22 coup and which has proved powerless to deal with the partition of the country since the Islamists and Tuareg rebels captured key northern cities.
ECOWAS and UN meetings
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will hold a mini-summit in Burkina Faso on Saturday to discuss the formation of a unity government that could request military intervention from its neighbours.
Mali has continued its descent into chaos since then and is de facto split in two, with Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda controlling the north.
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, on Wednesday denounced an "accumulation of horrors" in rebel-held northern Mali, saying women were raped, men beheaded and ancient treasures destroyed.
He repeated earlier comments that he was "confident" the UN Security Council would soon pass a resolution authorising the force to assist Mali win back its territory.
"The aim is firstly to re-establish constitutional order in the south and to ensure and affirm Mali's integrity," Fabius said. Following that, the goal would be "to regain lost territory".
The former colonial power's Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said France was determined to prevent the setting up of "international terror bases that threaten the peace and prosperity of the whole region and our security too".
ECOWAS says it has 3,300 troops ready to deploy in Mali.
The UN Security Council will on Thursday threaten sanctions against the Islamist fighters, but will not give a UN mandate to the proposed African intervention force, diplomats said.